Sunday, January 29, 2012

Slamdance ’12: The First Season

There are far easier ways to go broke than opening a dairy farm from near scratch. However, if they work like dogs, Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh might eventually break even. The ups and downs of their agricultural start-up are documented in Rudd Simmons’ The First Season, which screened during the recently wrapped 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

The Van Amburghs’ new old farm looks like it could have been painted by Andrew Wyeth, but as viewers watch the expensive refurbishing process, it is hard not to think there must be a reason the previous owners stopped farming there. Though hardly expecting to make a fortune, the Van Amburghs are still a bit surprised at how much it will all cost and how slim their margins will be.

Season will teach the audience quite a bit about modern dairy farming practices. One might come to suspect this is an industry that requires economies of scale as a result. Nonetheless, viewers have to root for the neophyte farmers as they grind away. They are hardly city-slickers bumbling about on their pretend farm. Instead, they appear to understand the process quite well and appear to be physically and temperamentally suited to such a life.

Indeed, the Van Amburghs should appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers. Their new venture partly reflects their desire to go back to nature, and a preference for reasonably pure, locally grown crops. However, they are also deeply family oriented and have relentless work ethics. If they were not already, they are now fiscal conservatives as well, at least in practice.

Clearly, Simmons (whose producer credits include Boardwalk Empire and Dead Man Walking) had constant access to the Van Amburghs. Yet, despite the mounting bills and taxes, the Van Amburghs never come across as whiny or resentful, which certainly helps maintain viewer sympathy. He also vividly captures a sense of the stark loneliness of their upstate New York farm and the surrounding environment.

Viewers who want to see a film about herd animals will find the Van Amburghs’ cows far more engaging the beasts in Denis Côté’s Bestiary, which screened at the other Park City festival. For idealists, the Van Amburghs are also rather refreshingly no-nonsense people. While their film will probably dissuade others from following in their footsteps, audiences will certainly wish them the best. Considerably more involving than one might expect, First Season is well worth catching as it makes the festival rounds, having started strong at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival, right on scenic Main Street.